Fallen Press Baron Conrad Black: A Canadian Neocon

For the three years I served in Rhodes, Greece with the U.S. Information Agency, perhaps my only complaint was the dearth of English-language daily newspapers. The New York Times arrived about six days late and The International Herald Tribune wasn’t much better. Nearly on time, however, was The Jerusalem Post, which had current news and features ranging from gardening to travel, and regular columnists. Long after I left Rhodes, Conrad Black bought The Jerusalem Post, which proceeded to change its editorial policies and become the anti-Arab paper it is today. Because of my personal “before and after” experience, I’ve never forgotten what the Canadian media mogul does to the newspapers he adds to his stable.

Black’s story is hardly one of rags to riches. His father, George Montegu Black, was president of Canadian Breweries, a major brewing conglomerate. Conrad’s mother was the great-granddaughter of an early co-owner of the prominent British newspaper TheDaily Telegraph. Conrad and his late elder brother and sometime business partner, Montegu Black, inherited about $7 million. Conrad Black’s wealth accumulated rapidly, and for a time he was extremely rich.

Born in 1944, Black attended an elite Canadian private school, Upper Canada College, which he hated. An indifferent student, because of lack of interest or motivation, he broke into the school records and stole a list of test answers. He made around $1,500 selling the list, until another student was caught with the purloined test answers and Black was expelled. He was then enrolled in a second school, Trinity College School, but was soon invited to leave. Black finally managed to graduate from his third school, Thornton College in Ontario.

He next attended Carleton University in Ottawa, where he majored in history and political science and took a three-year degree in 1965. He then went to Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and, according to Canadian blogger Grant Schuyler’s essay, “Lord Black of Crossharbour,” did not do well. He left after a year, fled to Quebec and led a quasi-Bohemian life for the next eight years.

In Quebec Black learned fluent French and, despite his casual lifestyle, completed his law degree in 1970 at Laval University. He also developed a strong interest in French history, with a particular fascination for French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Black earned an M.A. in history in 1973 at McGill University in Montreal, and considers himself an expert in military history. He didn’t get along with his supervising professor at McGill, however, a distinguished Canadian historian.

In his college days Black worked on the Eastern Townships Advertiser, a community newspaper in Quebec, and enjoyed it. By 1966 he, along with partners, bought the paper, along with the Sherbrooke Record, another Quebec newspaper, and one or two other small Canadian papers.

Before long, Black was using his inherited wealth and wheeling and dealing with corporate takeovers. When George Black died in 1976, he left his sons Conrad and Montegu stakes in Ravelston Corp., which had voting control of Argus Corporation, an influential holding company in Canada, as well as a stake in a mining company called Hollinger. By 1978 Black had acquired a controlling interest in Hollinger Mines. That same year he persuaded a wealthy widow to let him buy her late husband’s stock in the Argus Corporation, Canada’s most important conglomerate. Another widow accused him of fraud after he paid $30 million to take control of Ravelston. His own finances increased exponentially.

Hollinger Mines evolved into a holding company in 1979, and by 1985, after buying and selling other companies, became known as Hollinger International–which proceeded to acquire newspaper after newspaper, chain after chain. In 1985 Black took over The Daily Telegraph–his great-great-grandfather’s publication–and it became the flagship of his holdings, which also included the Spectator magazine in England. In 1990 Black bought the Jerusalem Post, firing most of its staff. That year his companies ran more than 400 newspaper titles in North America. He acquired the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. By the mid-1990s Hollinger was the world’s third largest newspaper company, and Black had control of about 60 percent of the daily newspaper circulation in Canada.

Suspicious of what he felt was a universal left-wing bias among Canadian journalists, he hired right-wing reporters and columnists. In the newspapers Black owned, moreover, “he and his minions stridently campaigned for Israel,” according to Schuyler.

According to New York Times journalist Richard Siklos, “He wrote conservative articles and biographies of great men whose lives he felt had been inaccurately depicted elsewhere, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon as well as himself.

“His trademark,” Siklos wrote, “was his Latinate diction as part of his grandiose style.”

Black had two sons, Jonathan-David Conrad Black and James Patrick Leonard Black, and a daughter, Alana Whitney Elizabeth Black, with his first wife, Joanna Hishon. The couple divorced in 1992, and Black married journalist Barbara Joan Estelle Amiel that same year. While he at one time embraced Catholicism, his wife remains a steadfast Jewish Zionist.

The Blacks hosted the infamous Kensington party in 2001 at which France’s ambassador to London, Daniel Bernard, referred to Israel as “that shitty little country.” Amiel was not at the table when the fateful conversation took place, but she reported the remark in her Daily Telegraph column. According to Amiel, the French ambassador added: “Why should we be in danger of World War III because of these people?”

Some called Barbara Black a “trophy wife.” Certainly she spent just as lavishly as her husband. Mrs. Black not only has a great passion for shoes, à la Imelda Marcos, but has also been quoted as saying that “she didn’t believe in small diamonds.” As journalist Schuyler put it, “her extravagance knew no limits.”

Hollinger International purchased two jets to carry the Blacks and other Hollinger partners around. Over the years Black purchased an 11-bedroom mansion in Kensington in West London, worth about $26 million. He also owns a $36 million estate in Palm Beach, Florida, a $4 million house in Toronto and a condo on New York’s Park Avenue worth at least $5 million. Black was ranked 23th in the “Sunday Times Rich List 2004.”

During his rise to power, Black denounced critics and sued journalists whom he claimed defamed him. In 1990, Penguin Books agreed to destroy 6,200 copies of Whose Money Is It Anyway? after Black initiated a libel suit over passages concerning his involvement in a pension fund dispute in one of his companies. Black has an outstanding $11 million libel suit against British author Tom Bower, who in 2006 published the biography Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge. Black also filed a libel suit against members of Hollinger International, which produced a 2004 report accusing him of looting the company, and is suing the U.S. government, claiming the FBI improperly seized $9 million from the sale of his Park Avenue apartment.

Black eventually overreached financially, and in 1999 and 2002, because of changes in the newspaper industry, Hollinger International had to sell off some newspapers, particularly the smaller ones, in the U.S., UK, and Australia.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered Conrad Black a British peerage, but the government of Canada’s then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien would not allow him to accept it. Arguing that Canadian citizens had sometimes been permitted to do so in the past, Black sued–and lost.

Angrily, in 2001 he publicly renounced his Canadian citizenship to become a British subject. That same year Black took his new title, Lord Black of Crossharbour–named after a subway station in London, where the Daily Telegraph has its headquarters.

The Beginning of the End
Black’s downfall began in 2002, when shareholders questioned payments Hollinger made to him and former business partner David Radler for agreeing that they would not compete for three years if they were to leave the company. As shareholder activist Herbert A. Denton put it, “When he paid a noncompete to himself–chutzpah comes to mind.”

In 2003, the two men were ousted from Hollinger. Two years later, they were charged with looting the company. Both men claimed that “the corporate terrorists were trying to steal their company.” Radler, however, went on to plead guilty to a single fraud count, and testified against Black and other Hollinger executives at their Chicago trial in return for the promise of a lenient sentence.

During the trial, Black was accompanied by his wife and daughter. According to the Times’ Siklos, Black “alternately charmed and bullied journalists.” Siklos also noted that Black had “populated his board with bold-face names such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle.”

On July 13, the jury found Conrad Black guilty of three counts of mail fraud and a single count of obstruction, and cleared him of nine other counts. He faces a maximum of 35 years in prison for the offenses, plus a maximum penalty of $1 million.

Black and three of his former Hollinger associates–chief financial officer John A. Boultbee; former vice president Peter Y. Atkinson; and the company’s former lawyer, Mark S. Kipnis–were convicted of skimming money from the sale of the assets of Hollinger International, now called the Sun-Times Media Group. (Hollinger shareholder Denton, who was involved in Black’s ouster, is now on the board of Sun-Times Media.)

The second count on which Black and the others were found guilty involved the sale of small-town newspapers in the fall of 2000, resulting in $600,000 being paid as non-compete agreements. The obstruction of justice charge resulted from Black’s removing boxes from his Toronto office ahead of the trial against court orders–a sight caught on the office’s security cameras and shown to the jury.

Black’s lawyer, Edward Greenspan, says his client intends to appeal, noting that Black was cleared of what Greenspan termed “the more serious charges.” Black has surrendered his passport and been ordered to remain in Chicago on the grounds that he is a flight risk.

Much of Black’s wealth has been confiscated as a result of his ouster from his company. In addition to his prison sentence and fines, he still faces more than $1 billion in civil litigation from the Securities and Exchange Commission and others, not to mention tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.

On July 13–the day of Black’s conviction–Britain’s Conservative Party said it would rescind its affiliation and no longer allow Black to sit on its side of the House of Lords. Two weeks earlier Black’s former patron, Tony Blair, had resigned as British prime minister.

Paul B. Healy, who worked for Black as a head of investor relations, said, “This is not a happy day and I believe that all of this could have been avoided if he had just dropped the arrogance.”

“Some Canadians have long regarded him as an overly publicized, loquacious…mogul, having little in common with them,” writes Grant Schuyler.

According to Will Ferguson, author of Canadian History for Dummies, “Black was revealed to be a swindler on a grand scale.” Noting that the Canadian history magazine The Beaver is running a contest to name “the worst Canadian ever,” Ferguson points out that Black, “having forsaken his own country and been convicted of swindling his shareholders, is one of the top nominees.”